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Maryland Tries Fresh Approach with Budget Transparency Portal

The Maryland departments of Information Technology, and Budget and Management applied their respective strengths to develop a modernized website that reports government spending facts and trends.

Without using one mouse click in the Maryland Transparency Portal, a citizen can confirm that Maryland paid roughly $30 billion to vendors during fiscal 2018.

With two clicks, one can see that $9.38 billion of the state’s proposed FY 2020 operating budget would go to the Medical Care Provider Reimbursements program. 

And with just a handful of clicks, you can learn that John Hopkins University received about $27.7 million in state grants during FY 2017. 

The portal, which launched in August, is the result of a partnership between the Maryland Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and Department of Information Technology (DoIT). Maryland CIO Michael Leahy said the site, whose home page utilizes a “menu model that folks are generally aware of,” reflects Gov. Larry Hogan’s charge to improve the public’s access to and understanding of state data. 

“The Maryland Department of Budget and Management has had these data sets available, but they were always in tabular form, and most citizens are like me, they’re visual,” Leahy said. “I’d much rather look at things in a chart or graph than simply a table with lots of numbers.”

Marc Nicole, DBM’s deputy secretary, said his department went through a “trial-and-error period” during early 2019 to repackage its data for public consumption. When DoIT became involved, there was roughly a month-long discussion about the initial parameters of the portal. 

The actual development phase lasted six weeks, Leahy said. Additionally, Maryland spent about $5,000 on internal labor, DoIT communications director Patrick Mulford said in an email to Government Technology

Nicole described the development process as “very collaborative.” DoIT concentrated on the technical side, making sure to display the data in a more comfortable format for users. Nicole said DBM gave regular feedback on how the data were interpreted, as certain nuances could only be recognized by individuals who are intimately familiar with the information. For example, corrections were made to prevent double counting, which, to an untrained eye, can easily occur based on how Maryland accounts for different details within its budget. 

Leahy said one of the most critical parts of the portal is its use of simple text to help people explore and visualize the data. 

“The difficulty [in presenting budget data] is we assume citizens are prepared to use the same language that we’ve used to create these models,” Leahy said. “By defining that upfront, we make it a lot easier for folks to put it in their thinking and search methodology.”

Leahy and Nicole both emphasized the “living document” aspect of the portal. While state transparency sites are typically updated on a quarterly or annual basis, Maryland intends to include new information in the portal as it becomes available.  

“We are going to be updating this in real time,” Leahy said.  

For instance, Nicole said DBM produced a report for the Maryland Legislature earlier in the year that contained descriptions of the state’s roughly 3,000 programs and subprograms. The plan is to add this language to the portal in the near future so that citizens can know exactly what they’re looking at. 

Maryland’s effort with the portal was partially inspired by the state transparency ratings featured in a report from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Nicole said. The criteria for these ratings often change, so states must be agile in their updates to receive or maintain a high rating. 

R.J. Cross, lead author of the 2018 PIRG report and policy analyst with Frontier Group, said states have made a lot of progress with their transparency since 2010, the beginning of this particular report series. 

“Each year, it’s customary for us to raise the bar [with the ratings criteria] to encourage more and more transparency,” Cross said. 

Cross said she understands the challenge that states face with improving their transparency sites. Those who are in charge of spending data often don’t have the IT expertise that would lead to superior presentation of the data. 

On top of that, the PIRG reports put greater focus on a different aspect of budget data every other year. The 2019 report, which is slated for November, will take a “deep dive into economic development and how states are providing citizens information about funds or tax breaks given to companies in exchange for promises of job creation and other benefits.”

In the 2018 PIRG report, Maryland received a “D+” for its provision of online government spending data. Based on the report’s criteria, Maryland’s new portal appears to address several of the state’s previous shortcomings. Although Cross hasn’t had an opportunity to examine the portal yet, she seemed intrigued by the collaborative nature of the project and the “pollination” between state departments during a phone conversation with Government Technology

“It seems that Maryland is taking a newer approach to transparency,” she said. “It sounds very promising.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.